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Surviving Trump: Resisting the Corruption of Negotiation Practice

Also see Conflict Resolvers’ Responsibility To Shape the Message of Negotiation by Maria Volpe.

Abstract: Donald Trump’s words, actions, and writing confuse thoughtful negotiation with bluster and brashness not the least because he describes himself as an expert negotiator. Beyond politics, he threatens to undermine the practice of negotiation, mediation and conflict management that has been cultivated over the last 65 years.

Politics in general, and national presidential politics in particular, have an influence on the public’s view and acceptance of negotiation.

Those people prominently featured on the national political stage running for President of the United States are discussing how they would propose to govern and decide important issues for our nation. In doing so, they are directly, or indirectly, effectively modeling and giving instruction to the people watching or listening, how they should do the same in dealing with others and making decisions in their own lives.

Many conflict management practitioners tend to overlook those influences. In fact, most would likely be troubled by the comparison of the mediation or negotiation of a serious business matter or family dispute to what appears to be the game-playing characteristic of raw politics. With good reason, they prefer to see their professional practice as wholly separate and apart. Yet, the essential activities going on in both contexts is much the same: they center on how people make decisions, and how they should be approached and engaged, and what might influence and persuade them to re-consider or shift in their thinking.

Those who are running for high offices often emphasize the weightiness and importance of the decisions they will be charged with making should they be elected. They stress how they are likely to concern life changing or even life threatening matters. People, who are negotiating or mediating difficult issues or controversies, likewise experience the same pressures and stresses in making decisions. Even if the matter is not life threatening, or all that important in the scheme of things, it feels as though it is to those involved. Whether the issues being discussed concern public matters, such as, taxes, the national debt, climate change, immigration policy, or national defense, or private business or family affairs, such as a divorce, workplace matter, or a contract or will dispute, the personal reactions to and questions about the decision making process are the same. They almost invariably include, among others, what are the “facts” and how do we know they are accurate? Who is or is not telling the truth? Who has betrayed whom? Can that other person with whom I must deal be trusted? And, finally, should I consider negotiating and trying to settle the matter, or should I fight them ‘tooth and nail’? It makes little difference if the issues concern climate change, dealing with Iran, or a property settlement in a divorce, will dispute, or business partnership dissolution.

But the dichotomy, as often as not, is a false one. In reality, there is an ongoing and continuous interplay between fighting and negotiating. Negotiative processes, both formal and informal, in every conceivable configuration, are an integral and inherent part of not only every political process and system from the most authoritarian to the most democratic, but in every business, organization, and family. Most people do not seem to realize that as much as we might like, negotiation is not always sufficient to settle some protracted and intractable conflicts or issues and likewise, fighting seldom, if ever, brings about a resilient and workable, let alone final, resolution of a controversy.

Most people do not appreciate the importance of negotiation, or understand how the process works. Trump does little to help them.

There are two critical tasks involved in the marketing and selling of negotiative processes as a viable mode of conflict management. The first is to overcome people’s ingrained resistance to negotiation and to enlist them in the process. The approach of many, still today, is based on a faulty working assumption that because negotiation appears to them to be an imminently sensible and civilized means of settling controversies, people would rationally want to embrace it upon its offering. They seem to be unaware or simply dismissive of the historically tawdry reputation of negotiation and those who would negotiate that continues to dominate conventional wisdom. Car dealers, lawyers, politicians, and diplomats, whose primary modus operandi is to negotiate, are at best, seen as ineffectual or compromising sell outs, or at worst as deceptive and conniving con artists.

Second, they need to educate people about what is actually involved in a negotiative process, how it is done, and what is required of them. Although the term negotiate is used freely, it is seldom explained and few people have a realistic understanding. Left to their imagination, the meaning of negotiation can range from Brando’s line in the movie The Godfather, a foreboding and threatening offer of “a deal they can’t refuse,” to John Lennon’s lyrics in the song Imagine, where he made a fervent plea for peace, understanding and forgiveness as he encouraged people to “share the world.” At the beginning of many difficult discussions an appeal is made for those involved to be trusting and collaborative in their discussions. While they might nod approvingly, however, most have trouble letting go of seeing the process through a win/lose lens. Trusting an adversary is evolutionarily prescribed to be not only strange and unnatural, but potentially costly and risky as well. Sometimes practitioners encourage people to trust each other before they are ready, which makes them resist and balk at negotiating all the more.

Donald Trump, as a prospective nominee for President of the United States, and as a self-described “great negotiator,” presents a double threat to the work of those dedicated to conflict management.

Not only is he prominent on the national political stage, but also he expressly describes himself as a “great negotiator who gets things done.” His words, actions and demeanor serve to reinforce and perpetuate people’s worst suspicions and inaccurate understandings of negotiation.

If he were seen primarily as merely another political figure, although his presence would be demoralizing, his behavior would be within the rough and tumble American political tradition that is filled with many extravagant figures that could give Trump a run for his money. There, blustery theatrics is the rule rather than an exception; arrogance, pomposity and bold or false promise are part of the game. Elected officials in general, and candidates perhaps more so, must appear like people of action who are unafraid to act decisively, especially when military action is under consideration. Saber rattling, such as, “speak softly but carry a big stick,” name-calling, like terming your enemy an “evil empire,” or treating them as savages that must be “smoked out of their caves,” are part of the expected bluster.

We in the audience are not entirely innocent either. While many of us claim to object to being played for fools, we have continuously been willing to play the part and more than willing to be stirred by the act and rhetoric. Notwithstanding the ‘predictable irrationality’ that is part of our make-up and makes us susceptible to simplistic solutions and displays of overconfident promises and bravado, somehow the country appears to have remained intact despite claims of its imminent decline—at least until now. The realization, however, that Trump’s and the similarly absurd statements and behaviors by other political figures, are natural and to be expected, does not lessen the cringing feeling an observer might have about the depths to which we have appeared to have fallen.

The vision of Trump as America’s “negotiator-in-chief,” is at the very least, disconcerting.

Trump, expressly and repeatedly describes himself as an expert negotiator and makes frequent references to his book, The Art of the Deal. People listening to him who are not familiar with negotiative process might well be inclined to think what he describes as negotiation is what negotiators actually do. So that as he brashly asserts how he would “negotiate with the Mexicans about building a wall and make them pay for it” to prevent illegal immigration, that will be taken to be a negotiation. One is left to wonder incredulously how Mexico might respond to that overture to negotiate in the form of an ultimatum? Of course, such a line is appropriate coming from someone who does not believe he should have to negotiate.

Trump succeeds only in reinforcing the time worn stereotypes and apprehensions that have encouraged peoples’ doubts and resistance to negotiative processes for centuries. What negotiation means is “we make you, or else.” While theatrical posturing is a part of negotiation, it can never be a substitute for a thoughtful strategy and disciplined skill.

I cannot help but imagine that someone who has watched or listened to Trump the night before they are to be engaged in negotiating an important business deal or scheduled to mediate a divorce settlement agreement, might be all the more confused and skeptical of the process. Worse yet would be the prospect that he or she might emulate his behavior. They might well pump themselves up to stand firm and ‘not compromise’ in a dispute, instead of doing the more strenuous work of listening to and engaging others in a negotiative format. Trump gives them good cause to yell, “I’m fed up and I’m not going to take it anymore,” instead of saying, “we need to talk and see if we can settle this thing.”

It is disheartening to think of the number of people who might lose the opportunity to learn what a thoughtful and serious negotiation process might look like and how it might help them traverse difficult issues by following his example. He is undermining the efforts of many who have diligently studied the negotiation and mediation processes and sought to make their skills as useful and as available to the public as possible.

Trump’s rhetoric and bluster is more worthy of an old fashioned no-negotiation, hard liner than a negotiator. Few commentators have appeared to notice that his notion of negotiation is far removed from anything a real practitioner would recognize. And his book, The Art of the Deal, does little to alter that view. It appears to be more of a collection of his greatest hits, —or conquests—selected and groomed more for his self aggrandizement than for any serious discussion of negotiation. There is nothing about strategy, listening to the other side or developing rapport, or generating and presenting options. Arguably, even Cromwell, Clausewitz, Kissinger, and Talleyrand, none described as push overs, still sought to be charming and engage in those ‘mundane’ tasks to effect agreements and make deals. Trump gives little advice to would-be negotiators in The Art of the Deal, other than to say, “you should all be me.” If all of the sentences beginning with “I did such and such…” or “I told them what they better do,” were deleted, the size of the book would be reduced by more than half.

“Autocratic negotiation” is an oxymoron.

There is no question but that Trump has tapped a deep vein of resentment, anger and fear that is pulsing through the American body politic in the shadow of the worst recession since the Great Depression and the terrorist attack on New York City and Washington D.C., not to mention major shifts in demographics and cultural mores giving rise to confusion, fear, frustration and anger. Under the best of circumstances, negotiation is viewed as a risky venture, but all the more so under the current circumstances. This is a time when simplistic solutions are the most appealing and Trump is one of the most prolific authors of them. He assiduously capitalizes on people’s impatience and fails to make mention of the potential ramifications of the ultimatums he suggests issuing. While it is to be expected that every negotiated agreement of any kind is likely to be second-guessed, as evidenced by the recent Iran Nuclear Agreement, Trump takes issue even with the idea of negotiation.

Being a man of action, who “gets stuff done,” can sometimes appear to be at odds with negotiating. In times past, Americans were proud of being a ‘can do’ culture with a pragmatic streak that encouraged moving forward and problem solving. And like it or not, their was a grudging acceptance of the necessity for informal negotiative processes to keep the wheels of industry and commerce turning. More recently, however, under the stress of social and economic change, there has been a retreat by many into a more fundamentalist and nostalgic vision of how the country should look and how we should operate.

This has always been a problematic issue in American culture. Although taming the west and the frontier ethos obligated a good measure of negotiation as a matter of survival, our cultural mythology has elevated to hero status those who are stoic, rugged individualists, who are uncompromising, and ostensibly true to their principles. The iconic actor, John Wayne, for example, would not negotiate, at least not on screen. He personifies the pure pursuit of the American idea of progress, which still reigns strong in the popular imagination, and emphasizes action over words. Meetings and discussions are derided as a waste of time, and in the same vein, negotiative processes are just a bunch of talk. If one must negotiate, then the preferred approach is to minimize irrelevant discussion, “cut to the chase” and get to the bottom line. Time is money; embellishments, such as stuff like listening or taking into account peoples’ concerns or feelings, are considered at best digressions from and contaminants of the core business purposes at hand. Of course, it is just such embellishments that make negotiative processes so effective. They allow people the chance to size each other up and to gain the measure of trust essential for them to not feel they are not going to be played for a fool.

Outwardly, because negotiative processes are informal and involve direct discussion, despite being more efficient and practical, they can appear to be a slower, less defined and prolonged process, the results of which are unclear. By contrast, fighting out a controversy, literally or in court, has the deceptive allure of providing a clear and final outcome. In accordance with the prevailing myth of justice, a legal determination will provide finality and settle a matter once and for all. Few people realize that war or legal actions are only the beginning, not the end of a dispute, not to mention how costly they will be emotionally, physically and in time and expense. Seldom does “winning” a fight, resolve the issue. Donald Trump does not appear to understand that reality. He still believes that for him to win, everyone else not only must lose, but admit defeat.

In the nostalgic vision of American history where all the characters were action heroes, myth has largely displaced fact. Many people have forgotten, or never knew, the essential role and importance of negotiation in forming the character of what the United States has become. They do not recall, for example, that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were both products of negotiative processes. Thus, despite these facts, for better or worse, there has always been a fear and frustration of and with a government that seemed to be at best ponderous and inefficient, and at worst, always threatened to become autocratic and intrusive. It would seem we have always preferred to subject ourselves to autocratic whims and control of private business and corporate interests, whose primary purpose is financial profit.

In this tradition, notwithstanding multiple bankruptcies, Trump is one of those who claim to “get things done.” How much he does by discussion and how much is done by intimidation, remains unclear. Even less clear is what he means when he makes reference to himself as a negotiator. He seems to prefer an autocratic style of negotiation that emphasizes ultimatums and directives, and is less disposed to the idea of compromise.

Over the last 65 years, negotiation has been retailored and updated into a more effective and constructive process that has begun to gain some measure of public acceptance. Trump threatens to undermine that work.

Negotiative processes have evolved as the primary means by which people manage issues in their own families, groups, and organizations, it is how they engage in commerce and trade, and manage controversies, settle conflicts and end wars. Everyone must negotiate at some time or another if they are to survive. Nonetheless, even in the present day, negotiation has seldom been people’s first choice to settle issues or difficulties, and when they do engage, it is often grudgingly and only after all other alternatives have been exhausted.

Their willingness or resistance to negotiation is higher or lower depending on a number of factors, including: personality, physical size and strength, race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and culture of origin. Dominant cultures or ethnic groups that are more powerful and can more easily impose their will on others, for example, tend to be less disposed to negotiate, while minority cultures or outsiders, always mindful of their place, rely more on negotiation as a means of fitting-in or surviving in a hostile environment. Even today, in every negotiative engagement, people feel it is in part a competitive contest where, depending on the matter, their emotional, social, political, economic, or physical well-being is on the line.

The same competitive instinct that makes people accept negotiation to survive, can also run amok and cause them to resist doing something that makes sense. Because negotiation requires a person to be somewhat willing to accommodate other peoples ideas and views, there must also be a corresponding willingness to check the basis and validity of his or her own presumptions, positions, and ideas. This kind of reflection requires sufficient strength and self-confidence to accept some amount of shift in thinking. There is often a delicate balancing point between one being confident enough to re-consider the ideas, beliefs and positions to which she is committed and faithful, without slipping into overconfidence, inflexibility and stubbornness. For many, just entertaining the idea of negotiation causes the slip into the latter; it is viewed as a sign of weakness, and lack of conviction, with the fear of being viewed as a sell-out just a few feet down the slippery slope. The overconfident tones of Trump’s brash pronouncements suggest he lacks the strength necessary to effectively negotiate at all, let alone manage the matters that are the regular fare of the present day world. In the last 50 years, the approaches to negotiative processes have been significantly re-tailored and retrofitted to manage issues and controversies that are more systemically and technically complex than ever before. Many of those matters have profound, life threatening consequence hanging in the balance. If a negotiation does not go as expected, he will not be able to merely claim bankruptcy and walk away as he has done in the past.

The development of negotiative strategies and processes were dramatically overhauled in large part as a direct response to the collective fear of the very real threat of nuclear annihilation that gripped the post World War II world. Hiroshima and Nagasaki compelled the search for alternative approaches to managing conflict, which in turn fostered the focused and disciplined study of negotiation, mediation and other conflict management strategies and techniques for perhaps the first time in human history. Since then, that work has seeped into the general culture and negotiative processes have become more prominent not only in international affairs, but in the management of complex issues in family, business, workplace, public policy, environmental, and sustainable development matters, among many other contexts. As well, over the last 25 years, the teaching of negotiation, mediation and conflict management theories and skills has become formally included in many law schools curriculums. Programs in conflict management have begun to emerge at the undergraduate and graduate levels of study, and rudimentary negotiation skills increasingly included in many primary and secondary school studies.

Gaining acceptance for the value, importance, validity and legitimacy of the use of negotiative processes to manage controversies and difficult issues, is far from complete. Even before Donald Trump came to prominence or The Art of the Deal was published, many believed that negotiation was the wicket of slick operators, or just another form of warfare where the purpose was to win by any means necessary. Those views have a long history that stretches back to the writings of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars in Greece, which occurred between 431 and 404 B.C. Similar views of negotiation and mediation still persist and remain strong to the present day. In historical terms, only very recently have advocates of negotiation systematically sought to present and cultivate a more thoughtful and constructive notion of the negotiative process and to chip away at the older, more tortured view of negotiation. Donald Trump, if a negotiator at all, is little more than a throwback to that more primitive view of negotiation as blood sport.

What is to be done?

Those of us who are or have dedicated our careers to the disciplined practice of negotiation, mediation and conflict management are left with task of mounting a rear-guard action to protect that work. While there are disagreements and continuing discussions among both theorists and practitioners about best practices, models, and approaches, as there should be, our collective attention should also be given to distinguishing our work in conflict management from Mr. Trump’s more primitive notions. As a celebrity and prospective Presidential nominee, he has obtained a national audience by hook, crook, or default. This affords him the opportunity to brand and sell his style of negotiation. Although it is unlikely we can obtain a similar platform, allowing that to happen unfettered and without comment will undermine and disserve the work of all of us who have sought to give careful attention to the study and discipline of competent negotiative practice.

Trump and “The Trump Negotiation Method,” although surprisingly not yet patented or copyrighted, needs to be called out as a misrepresentation of competent negotiative practice and the risks and consequences highlighted. It neither includes any serious presentation of negotiative skills, nor is it purposed to settle controversies or bring about competent deals. What is worse, the public is left even more confused than ever about the negotiation process. The net result will be a setback for the further public acceptance of negotiative processes as a viable and legitimate means of managing difficult issues and controversies. In addition, Trump’s behavior contributes to the further coarsening of public dialogue and the further blurring of the lines between the serious discussion of matters of consequence and the promotion of what is little more than a farcical charade.

There are basic and fundamental elements and tenets of negotiative practice that are collectively shared. In some fashion, almost all theorists and practitioners believe it is important to carefully study the sources of controversy and conflict, how people make decisions, the theories and skills necessary for effective communication, and how to structure processes so that that workable understandings are more likely to emerge from those involved rather than imposed upon them. For those of us invested in furthering the competent and thoughtful practice of negotiation, whatever our respective style or context of practice, it is important to collectively claim ownership of these and other fundamental tenets of what makes for a constructive negotiative process.

Allowing negotiation to become little more than an extension of Donald Trump’s, or anyone else’s cult of personality, without calling them to account, would be a regrettable error. Not only would our work of many years be undermined, but at a critical time when our society most needs to have effective negotiative processes available to manage complex issues and controversies, they might well become Trumped and corrupted.


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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